NO REGRETS – the terry pratchett interview
ALBEDO ONE: The Colour of Magic was your fourth novel but your first success. Did you ever think you were wasting your time writing?
PRATCHETT: No. I never thought I’d wasted my time with the other ones. I made enough money out of them. My idea of a good novel was one you made enough money out of to buy a greenhouse. I wrote three books, I had three greenhouses. It seemed to me to be very satisfactory. Then when The Colour of Magic became successful I realised I was capable of putting the entire Amazonian rain forest under glass. I didn’ t think I was wasting my time, I was enjoying what I was doing.
ALBEDO ONE: At what stage did you know that The Colour of Magic was going to be a hit?
PRATCHETT: It’s very hard to say. It came out in hardcover and did well, but it was really when it came out in paperback that we started to get feedback from shops like Andromeda in Birmingham that it was their best selling book. And I think it stayed their best selling book for two years and when it was knocked off it was knocked off by Light Fantastic. We started getting word of mouth that it was doing very well and it crept up on me very quietly. Equal Rites was doing very well in what you might call fannish circles and suddenly Mort was number two in national best-seller lists -that was the fourth Discworld book.
ALBEDO ONE: Did any of the others then hit the lists in retrospect?
PRATCHETT: No. The best-seller lists don’t work like that.
ALBEDO ONE: There was no resurgence of sales to put them onto the list?
PRATCHETT: Oh, yes. My God, here is an innocent man who thinks that bestseller lists have anything to do with the number of books sold. The point is that if a book that had been published three years ago started to sell twice as many all of a sudden it probably wouldn’t even get noticed. People wouldn’t be tracking it. The system has cleaned up its act an awful lot but the best-seller list system is not an entirely foolproof thing. I know about three or four years ago one newspaper did a spot check. They phoned up some SF specialist bookshop and said ‘Can you give us your best sellers for the week,’ and I think number three was Equal Rites and that had been out for three or four years by then, but that particular week it had sold a lot. Mort was the first one that featured in best-seller lists but there is no doubt that if best-seller lists had anything to with sales (I know why it doesn’t – they say the Bible would be number one all the time) but the annual sales of the other books are such that it would be surprising if there hadn’t been weeks when they should have featured in the best-seller lists, technically. But the lists don’t work that way. It’s only to do with recently published books. So Mort was the first one that made it and I have to say that subsequent to that none of the others have failed. But there’s always a first time… I must say carefully that they made it in one edition or the other though many of them have made it in both hardcover and paperback. It’s not simply what books you sell in that period, it’s how many books other people sell.
ALBEDO ONE: So it’s important what time of the year you launch a book, like with a movie.
PRATCHETT:Yes. A hardback’s harder at Christmas time because that’s a good hardback buying time. And it depends on who else is around and…
ALBEDO ONE: Would it be more important to get the physical sales – you say it’s a good hardback selling time so you could get better sales – but is it more important in the long run to get the higher immediate sales than to actually appear on the best-seller list?
PRATCHETT: Oh, I Think one would be very stupid if you said it was anything other than getting as much of their money into my pocket as possible. A friend of mine has said. ‘It has been established, we have it on impeccable authority, that the poorer you are the more likely you are to go to heaven. Just think how helpful you have been in helping lots of people just that little bit further along the road to salvation.’ (LAUGHS) No, I’d like to sell a lot of books It would be nice if featuring on the best-seller lists was part of that. It’s probably quite possible to sell a lot without featuring. There have been people who have been on the list who haven’t sold at all. That sort of thing can’t happen now but in the bad old days a book which didn’t actually get published that week nevertheless seemed to be selling very well according to the lists.
ALBEDO ONE: So how long after the success of The Colour of Magic did you chuck the day job?
PRATCHETT: The Colour of Magic started to take off in 1985, I chucked the day job in… We knew in the Spring of ’85 that Colour of Magic was doing well, I chucked the day job in Autumn of ’87.
ALBEDO ONE: Did you rush into it?
PRATCHETT: No. (A REFLECTIVE PAUSE) The honest truth is that I chucked the day job at about the right time. I could have chucked it earlier and there would have been a little bit of … (I never did discover what there would have been a little bit of- RN) I can now say that yes of course it would have been fine and I should have chucked it earlier but bearing in mind that I wasn’t too certain what the future held I chucked the day job when I knew that, as it were, I had contractual arrangements and things which gave me some years of security.
ALBEDO ONE: Was it your intention right from the start to write a series of novels about the Discworld when you were writing The Colour of Magic.
PRATCHETT: No, no it was never my intention to write a series but they have this habit of turning up in my head and so they get written. Because I don’t stick to the same characters and as I’m not doing some lengthy chronicle and because the Discworld is a fairly flexible place with all kinds of different continents and peoples and things I can more or less make anything fit without stretching the Discworld too much. Small Gods was a fairly angry book. Men At Arms is a police procedural novel. I can make all these fit into the Discworld frame.
ALBEDO ONE: You say Men At Arms is a police procedural. I haven’t seen it except as a title on a list. Are you saying that it is less humorous?
PRATCHETT: Oh, no, no, no. A police procedural novel can be even funnier if the police include Trolls and Dwarves and things like that. You start looking at the whole basis of the cop novel. You get the cop moving in a different way when you’ve actually set it in a fantasy city. The Discworld is flexible enough to enable me to do all kinds of things.
ALBEDO ONE: Do you have any desire in the future to write things that aren’t humorous?
PRATCHETT: I will do. I’ve kept saying this… I would say it’s likely if not definite that the next two years will see the first non-Discworld adult novel. Put adult in any kind of inverted commas you want. I’ve been thinking about it for some time. Not because I’m tired of the Discworld but because there are some things I can’t do in the Discworld that I can do elsewhere. But I will keep the Discworld going while do¬ing something else as well.
ALBEDO ONE: Have you any idea how many more Discworld novels there are?
PRATCHETT: They just keep on popping into my head. Even if I didn’t have another main central idea, I know
ALBEDO ONE: Will that be one a year or…
PRATCHETT: I don’t know. They may be like buses – none will come for ages and then there will be three at once. The point is, when I wrote number one I didn’t know there was going to be a number two and so on all the way through, so it would be ridiculous of me to forecast. All I know is that one of the central images for the one I’m going to write next (I’ve just finished the one that’s going to come out in the Spring) hit me about three days ago. Wow! Yes and that’s never been done. Five minutes before I hadn’t known about it and five minutes after I realised I knew where the plot lay, so I can’t forecast what’s going to happen.
ALBEDO ONE: Does Men At Arms feature any of the old crew?
PRATCHETT: It’s not a sequel to, but it follows on from, Guards! Guards! Literally follows on in the sense that it takes place a few months later. I had various things I wanted to say and various avenues I wanted to explore and the guards of Ankh Morpork were a useful tool for doing it.
ALBEDO ONE: Is the police procedural a genre that you enjoy reading?
PRATCHETT: I don’t read an awful lot of fantasy because for relaxation I don’t think you should always… for example I don’t think a baker reads an awful lot about bread. And there has been a lot of bad fantasy in the past – I’m by no means saying that all classic fantasy out there is bad – but there has been a lot of bad fantasy written by people who read a lot of fantasy and so all they keep doing is recycling it. What I actually read for pleasure is all kinds of stuff: I quite like the darker police procedural, people like Carl Hiaasen and Joseph Wambaugh and I thought ‘Hey! Let’s do a police procedural and let’s do it for a police force that has no procedures, whose idea of forensic science is to get the local ghoul to taste the corpse to see how long it’s been dead.’ And then they’ re faced with a mystery that they have to follow clues for. I thought that there had to be a murder mystery involving something they did not understand and had no mechanism for understanding. But the nice thing about your police procedural as opposed to your classic murder mystery is that in a murder mystery you don’t know who did it. Whereas in a police procedural you know, you know everything often and you’re watching the police home in. Columbo, for example, you know who did it. The fun is in watching Columbo zipping backwards and forwards and finally muddling through. So I did the special little Columbo bit where the guy asks all the questions and then does the bit… (TERRY STANDS AND GOES TO THE DOOR, MIMES LEAVING THEN COMING BACK) Then he asks the one question that’s key to the whole thing. And then there are all the other cop cliches.
You can actually have a lot more fun by looking in other genres. Actually, I’m currently quite enraged on the point of genres. I walked along to Hodges Figgis and saw that Margaret Attwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale which was winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award was put in among the Literature. It’s clearly a work of Science Fiction but it’s not put amongst the Science Fiction because it’s Margaret Attwood and we don’t want to give her the mark of Cain by suggesting that she writes SF. Can you seriously have a bookshop that has LITERATURE and Popular Fiction – I thought, does it mean that the literature isn’t popular? Or the popular fiction isn’t good? I mean what is it you’re trying to say, please? This is the Nineteen Nineties, you know.
ALBEDO ONE: Before going any further, back to Lords and Ladies, your latest paperback. It flows just like all the others.
PRATCHETT: It’s making it look easy that’s the hard part.
ALBEDO ONE: You’re using characters from previous books here. Are you beginning to favour some of them?
PRATCHETT: No, no I’ll tell you what it is, it’s like being the old type of Nineteen Thirties Hollywood studio and in comes this script and for this script we need… And in a sense it’s like having a cast of actors and saying ‘Actually, that’s a good part for Granny Weatherwax there’. It has some advantages and disadvantages. I don’t do it an awful lot. There are the three ‘Witches’ books and Rincewind turns up in three; there’s a number of books with Death as a main character, though they’re all different types of books and all the others are one offs. There may be some central characters that appear asbackground characters in some of them. There’ll always be a mixture of some new ingredients and some old ingredients and the old ingredients are there to hold it together. Besides it works for the three ‘Witches’ because I had them established and they fitted into the Shakespearian bits. It just worked having the three of them, so I had the Three Witches.
ALBEDO ONE: And the graphic novel…
PRATCHETT: The Big Comic. They insist on calling it the graphic novel. I call it the big comic.
ALBEDO ONE: I’ve got to say I…
PRATCHETT: Don’t like it very much.
ALBEDO ONE: What I feel about all graphic novels is that the concept works well when you’re beefing up a short story but when you’re cutting a novel down there’s too much raw material.
PRATCHETT: Yeah, and you lose a lot of what makes it what it is. The Americans did the comic and they said ‘Can we bring it out as the (excuse the term) ‘graphic novel’. I don’t like the term. Here’s the speech: Dark Fantasy is just another way of saying Horror. People don’t like to say Horror so they say Dark Fantasy because that’s Horror wearing a collar and tie. And people don’t like to say Fantasy they say Magic Realism which means Fantasy written by somebody I went to university with. And people don’t like to say comic so they say Graphic Novel, despite the fact that I don’t think the true Graphic Novel has been written anywhere. What they mean is, ‘Here is a rather more respectable form of comic with no Kapow! balloons and I really wish that peoplewould just say, ‘Yes, it’s a comic. Yes, this is fantasy. Yes, this is Science Fiction,’ and defend the genre instead of saying, (ADOPTS A WHINING GIT VOICE) ‘Horror is a bit passe so this is Dark Fantasy,’ and that’ s playing someone else’s game. So that’s why I say I’m a fantasy writer and to hell with ‘It doesn’t read like what I think of as a fantasy’. In that case what you think of as a fantasy is not a fantasy. Or there is more to it than you think.
But for the next comic, Mort, I have actually done the script. And I’ve started again from scratch and I’m bound to say, it works. I’m doing it with Graham Higgins, who’s done stuff for 2000AD and everything, and we’ve worked very closely. And I’ve seen the first half of it and it really does work. Mort gets an extra dimension by being a comic; it’s a slightly different story, but there are things I could never have put in the book which I can put in the corner of a panel in the comic and it will then get a laugh.
ALBEDO ONE: That can only work with the original writer.
PRATCHETT: Yes. Because I knew exactly what the material was doing and how to move it around. I actually think that the first two, The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic, were the worst ones to make into graphic novels because they had no real coherent plot, they were fun books. Whereas later books like Wyrd Sisters and Mort and Guards! Guards! actually have a plot and maybe it is possible to get more of that plot down. If this one works, or rather when this one works, I might have another go because it’s like being able to make a film in the privacy of your own head, so I very much enjoyed working on the script.
ALBEDO ONE: So, do I take it that you were unhappy with the result of the graphic novelizations?
PRATCHETT: No. I said they were adequate and I said if someone’s actually going to make a comic of The Light Fantastic or The Colour of Magic they ‘re probably not going to do much better than this. And there is nothing in it where I said ‘Oh, God no, they’re an interesting addition to the Pratchett archives but they don’t move things forward’ whereas Mort, the big comic, as I persist in calling it to the annoyance of Gollancz, enhances the original book.
I have a suspicion -I have to be careful what I say – that you might actually find the best comics actually written by people who are comics writers and who aren’t setting out to do graphic novels. I mistrust the term graphic novel because it sounds like a good thing to put on a tee-shirt. That’s why the French like them. The worst kind of graphic novels are all style; impenetrable plot but shit-loads of style. In the same way that maybe some of the best books are written by craftsman writers that are just going to get out there to do, God help us, a rattling good yarn. And maybe the best comics are written by people who really are at ease in the comic world.
ALBEDO ONE: Which is a nice place to bring in Neil Gaiman because his background is in comics and you collaborated with him on Good Omens.
PRATCHETT: No. He collaborated with me.
ALBEDO ONE: Did you enjoy the collaboration?
PRATCHETT: Oh, yeah. Both of us thought of it as a fun thing. The first draft was nine very interesting weeks. Both of us have said together and independently that we wouldn’t do it again for huge sums of money. Good Omens II wouldn’t be fun to do.
ALBEDO ONE: Is there anybody that you would like to collaborate with?
PRATCHETT: It’s not a case of who I’d like to collaborate with, that one was exactly right. We wereboth in a similar frame of mind, we had something that we were both keen on, we both had a lot of ideas about, and it all happened v ery naturally in a way that could never really have happened if we had set out to make it happen. Also it was the first time that Terry Pratchett, no offence to Neil, or a title with Terry Pratchett’s name on it somewhere had ever been auctioned. I wouldn’t say that I’d been paid much per book before but I’d been happy with it. And so when it went out to auction and the bidding figure went past the hundred thousand and was still accelerating I was lying on the floor shouting ‘Take the money’. It went for a lot of money, certainly a lot of money then. Pocket money now (LAUGHS). So if we did it again we would do it knowing, probably, it was going to be a best-seller and all the stakes would be higher. Whereas we actually said to ourselves when we did it, ‘We hope we’ll make enough out of it to justify the time we put in’. We actually did it very nearly as a holiday job and it was fun. Besides which our careers, I won’t say they’ve separated, because they weren’t… we just happened to know each other. But he’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine. Even when we were do ing it we seemed to be spending a lot of time on different continents and now he’s in the States for a couple of years. There is no possibility of doing it, so there’ll never be aGood Omens II.
And collaboration isn’t something that I’ve automatically thought of. I mean, Stephen Briggs and myself are collaborating on the Discworld companion, which is kind of the spoof Discworld encyclopaedia which is coming out next year. But there are some quite straightforward demarcation lines. He has sweated like mad doing a Discworld database so that every character and every mention of every character can be pulled together. So I said okay, so now I can do the Granny Weatherwax piece.
He’s got access to all my notes and stuff that never got published and novels that got half written and it has all been pulled together and I’m doing extra entries and stuff but that’s rather different because we’re both doing independent things. He’s doing lots of illustrations. That’s fun, but it isn’t a collaboration in the Good Omens sense.
So, for the future I just can’t see where the contingency would arise. But I’m certainly never going to franchise Discworld, that’s a definite. I see lots of attempts by people to write in what they think of as a Discworld style. That’s like saying ‘Juggling’s easy. You just chuck one ball up in the air and the rest follows. There’s no problem. I watched a guy and I’ve seen how he does it.’ But they find that there’s an additional thing that you have to do.
ALBEDO ONE: There’s a tendency for other publishers to disguise books as Terry Pratchett novels with Josh Kirby covers…
PRATCHETT: Dear me. Is there really? I can’t properly blame Josh Kirby. He has to make an honest dollar like everyone else and he’s self-employed. The diplomatic thing for me to say is that if publishers are dressing up other authors as Terry Pratchett clones then they are doing a disservice to those authors. If they didn’t dress them as clones but did something different, then those authors could be pioneering in a different sense. There was one case where we had to take a little gentle action, where a casual glance at the advertising material would have suggested that here was another Discworld book. The word DISCWORLD was in big letters, Terry Pratchett was in big letters – a book similar to those written by TERRY PRATCHETT. So we had a quiet word.
ALBEDO ONE: Getting away from the Discworld, how long is it since you wrote your first children’s book?
PRATCHETT: That was my first book which came out when I was seventeen. My last was Johnny and the Dead which was out in hardcover a few months ago.
ALBEDO ONE: I read Johnny and the Dead and thoroughly enjoyed it.
PRATCHETT: Johnny and the Dead is one of the books I am proudest to have written. It would be wrong to say that it laid ghosts but it was a book I was very glad to have written. There were things in it I couldn’t possibly have done in Discworld and it got me the Writer’s Guild Best Children’s Book of the Year Award. And that was other writers voting. It wasn’t some sort of self-appointed committee, it was other people who graft for a living. I was really chuffed to get that award.
ALBEDO ONE: So I may presume that you are going to continue writing children’s books.
PRATCHETT: I really don’t think there’s too much difference. There’s some things that you wouldn’t tackle in a children’s book because it would be beyond, not the mental capabilities, but the experience of someone under the age of say ten or eleven to encompass. But that field is smaller than you might think. They can easily cope with death and things like that; they know about it and it’s a subject that often preoccupies them. And there are some things that are more appropriate to a children’s than an adult book but there’s a huge overlapping area and most kids read an age group up anyway. No one thinks that young adults read hooks for YOUNG ADULTS, books for young adults are read by kids. Young adults that actually read are reading bodice rippers and best-sellers and me. (LAUGHS HEARTILY) And Horror. Everyone is reading what they like and that’s a good thing.
ALBEDO ONE: And is there a top age limit for you?
PRATCHETT: The oldest fan letter I’ve had is from someone aged eighty-five. So up until death and maybe beyond.
(At this point the street map of Ankh Morpork was produced).
ALBEDO ONE: What can you say about this? It’s a lovely presentation but a ten minute read.
PRATCHETT: Well it’s not even a ten minute read. It is the map of Ankh Morpork. There is very little Discworld paraphernalia for a series of its popularity which has got fifteen books.
The map is quite genuine. It’s a map of the books. People have sat down with stopwatches and a draft of the map and tried to prove it wrong. We didn’t say let’s draw a map and make it work. It was simply done for no more reason than Stephen Briggs, who designed it, looked at the books and said, ‘This might be something worth doing because there’s lots of people out there who have collected all the Discworld books and might like to get something else.’ That’s going to turn up on a lot of walls.
ALBEDO ONE: What disappointed me in a way was all the stuff that you would have to take off to hang it and then you lose all these nice booklets.
PRATCHETT: Buy a second one. £4.99 – cheap. I tell you what, to you only £9.98 the pair. Knocking on from that is the Discworld Companion. We actually sat and designed a coat of arms for the guilds, with their bad Latin mottos. I can actually remember Mort’s which is Non Timesti Misorum (APPROXIMATE SPELLING ONLY, DUE TO IGNORANCE) which actually is the Latin for Don’t Fear The Reaper and I was so pleased that I was able to get that one in.
We’ve done it as a fun thing. It’s as simple as that.